October 27, 2021

Living with a Nuclear North Korea


Arms control rather than disarmament is desirable. Too bad neither presidential candidate seems interested.

a href=“https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/picture-nuclear-weapon-mass-destruction-north-718871299>creativa images/Shutterstock

North Korea has steadily pursued the acquisition of nuclear weapons and a reliable means of delivering them for the better part of the last twenty years.

In less than a generation, a state that used to be dismissed as a fourth-rate backwater has effectively become the world’s ninth nuclear weapons state, and we will be living with the consequences of that for decades to come. Their success in achieving this goal has been aided greatly by the inflexibility and intransigence of several American administrations, all of which have chased after an increasingly unrealistic goal of disarmament. There are few issues where new and creative thinking is more needed in U.S. foreign policy than North Korea, and there are few where there is less evidence of such thinking in both parties.

Ankit Panda has provided an important history of these developments and an excellent analysis of their implications in Kim Jong Un and the Bomb. Panda recounts in extensive detail how North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs have advanced through a process of trial and error, and he chronicles how North Korea made major advances in both in the last decade since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011. North Korea now has the means to threaten U.S. mainland territory with nuclear attack, and the U.S. will have to take that into account in any future crisis on the peninsula. North Korea has acquired this capability primarily to deter an attack against its own territory and to keep the regime in place. Panda also explains why the future of negotiating with North Korea will require a shift away from insisting on disarmament in the near term and focusing on working out arms control agreements to put limits on a North Korean arsenal that isn’t going away anytime soon.

Panda’s book is very good in describing Kim’s reasons for creating what the North Korean leader calls their “treasured sword”: it is not only a safeguard against an American attack, but it also serves to shore up his position domestically. Regime preservation is what concerns Kim first and foremost, and developing a sophisticated nuclear arsenal has been central to his plan for keeping himself and his family in power. Panda shows that Kim has pursued his goal consistently and rationally while U.S. officials have made a habit of portraying Kim as “erratic and irrational.” For its part, our government has repeatedly underestimated North Korean technical capabilities and it has misread their leadership’s behavior. Our political leaders have a bad habit of failing to distinguish between behavior that they regard as undesirable and behavior that is genuinely irrational. As Panda puts it, “Cruel regimes might not approach foreign policy-making with strategic precision and acuity, but it does not follow that they are irrational.”

The U.S. sought for decades to block North Korea from being able to build nuclear weapons. Perversely, the more that the U.S. squeezed North Korea in pursuit of this goal the more determined they became to secure a deterrent that would protect them from possible attack. U.S. wars of regime change in Iraq and Libya served as cautionary tales for what could happen to North Korea if they failed to obtain that deterrent or agreed to give it up, so any suggestion that North Korea might be willing to dismantle its nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees has never made much sense. There is no promise that the U.S. could make at this point that Kim could trust, and there is no guarantee that the U.S. could make that would secure his position better than retaining that arsenal.

Early on, the U.S. might have offered incentives to delay or stall North Korea’s nuclear program, but the Bush administration chose to wreck the Agreed Framework that had been moderately successful in doing just that. Almost immediately, North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and within a few years they tested their first nuclear device. Ever since, the U.S. has tried to compel North Korea into giving up its weapons, and this effort to sanction North Korea into submission has predictably failed.

The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has taken this failed policy to its logical conclusion with the same results. Despite the administration’s spin that it was sanctions that brought North Korea to the table, Panda shows that it was Kim’s confidence in the North Korean arsenal that made him willing to pursue a policy of engagement with South Korea and then with the U.S. Having just created a functioning nuclear deterrent, North Korea was hardly going to turn around and scrap it. U.S. policymakers were once again working on faulty assumptions and made demands that North Korea was never going to accept. Worse, because the administration was preoccupied with boasting about their “success” in engaging with North Korea, U.S.-North Korean talks went nowhere on matters of substance and U.S. sanctions impeded practical cooperation between North and South Korea that was essential to Seoul’s engagement effort.

At the same time that the Trump administration has tried to sanction North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons, it has ostentatiously abandoned a nonproliferation agreement that Iran negotiated with the P5+1 in good faith. Iran was fully in compliance at the time that the U.S. withdrew and ceased participating in the deal in 2018, the same year that Trump and Kim held their first ill-fated summit, but that didn’t stop the administration from launching an economic war against Iran with a list of far-fetched demands attached.

Throughout the policy of pseudo-engagement with North Korea, the administration has insisted that the agreement it would get with Pyongyang would be much “stronger” than the agreement negotiated with Iran, but this was never going to happen. Not only does North Korea have much more leverage than Iran ever did, but they can see how the U.S. reneged on an agreement with Iran that was working exactly as intended. The message to North Korea once again was that the U.S. will seek to extract as many concessions as possible and then go back on its own commitments.

If North Korea is not going to be disarmed, what can U.S. diplomacy seek instead? This is where Panda’s book is particularly useful. The U.S. has to change its approach from seeking disarmament to adopting an arms control agenda that can provide greater stability and security for both Koreas, the U.S., and East Asia as a whole. As Panda bluntly says, “If North Korea is no longer a disarmament problem for the United States and the world—or at least, not usefully conceived as a disarmament problem—then it is an arms control problem.” Put another way, U.S. policy towards North Korea has to take into account the major changes that have occurred in the last fifteen years. Our North Korea policy in the 2020s cannot proceed as if it is still 2002. As Panda argues, now it is a problem to be managed, and arms control is the means of managing it.

Panda makes clear that he thinks that denuclearization as a long-term goal is still desirable, and ultimately the U.S. should aspire to bring North Korea back into the NPT, but he insists that both of those are a long way off and shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with imposing meaningful restrictions and inspections in the near term. North Korean nuclear weapons have to be accepted for the foreseeable future, and he makes a persuasive case that the U.S. and its allies have already accepted them as the de facto reality whether they officially recognize North Korea’s changed status or not. The U.S. and its allies can continue their denial and wishful thinking, or they can put some limitations on a North Korean arsenal that could otherwise grow unchecked.

The failure of the effort to prevent North Korean nuclear weapons development should also spur the U.S. to undo one of the worst mistakes of the last several years. Just as wrecking the Agreed Framework pushed North Korea toward nuclear weapons, the determined effort by this administration to sabotage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action risks repeating the errors of the past with Iran. Contrary to the absurd claims of outgoing Iran envoy Brian Hook, North Korea’s arsenal is exactly what happens when the U.S. casts aside a working nonproliferation agreement and makes more far-reaching demands.

If arms control is the right way to manage the problem of North Korean nuclear weapons, it is unfortunate that neither major party candidate in this election seems interested in doing this. While the president remains wedded to a failed Potemkin “diplomacy” that rejects compromise, his challenger Joe Biden has shown no more imagination. According to a recent Reuters report, a Biden North Korea policy would be the same fruitless combination of sanctions and unrealistic demands:

Biden would not shut the door to diplomacy, but instead “empower negotiators and implement a sustained and a coordinated effort with allies and partners” to pressure and incentivize North Korea to denuclearize, while also drawing attention the country’s human rights abuses in a way that has been lacking in current U.S. policy, the Biden adviser said.

No matter who wins in November, the U.S. will have to learn how to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea. Arms control is the path forward that a future administration will have to take sooner or later, but every year that the U.S. delays in accepting this is another year that North Korea will have to hone and improve its “treasured sword.”

This post originally appeared on and written by:
Daniel Larison
The American Conservative 2020-08-28 04:01:00